(You’re not welcome) On the dark side of co-facilitation

Facilitation (Credits - VisualPunch / FlickR)
Facilitation (Credits – VisualPunch / FlickR)

Meanwhile, another excellent KM4Dev conversation is raging, on the topic of defining ‘what a facilitator is‘.

Among other contributions, my fellow facilitator, KM4Dev mate and friend Nancy White shared a list of issues related to the dark side of facilitation…

The real life and dark sides of a facilitator below. I’m sure there are a few people here who can add to this list. 😉


  • called in after everything is really messed up (tip: build relationships before client lists)
  • is not briefed on the deeper, real and often problematic issues (“Oh, this is a fantastic group.” Right! Tip: develop a good set of questions to help discern the issues)
  • is asked to facilitate, but not included in design of a (really bad) agenda (tip: refuse to do this unless the designer was brilliant!)
  • runs into very interesting gender issues that are often unspoken, unrecognized (tip: pay attention to and make gender issues discussable)
  • has to facilitate in really BAD rooms in large international organizations (chairs nailed to floor. tip: go outside.)
  • sometimes is given great trust w/ sponsors and groups and all have a transformative experience. LIVES for these moments (tip: debrief: why was this so good? How can we do this again?)
  • mistakes conflict as something that must be shut down (tip: conflict is often the flag that you hit a core issue. Use it generatively)
  • sometimes crazy arrogant and drives to their own agenda (tip: self awareness is a facilitators best friend)
  • does not build capacity in others (tip: co facilitate, mentor, give up control)
  • actually facipulates  (tip: be honest when your approach has any manipulative elements. Use that in your favor, transparently)
  • leaves after the meeting so does not live the consequences (good, bad or otherwise) (tip: what about simple follow up… how are things going? What did we learn?)
  • is not an integral part of the organization (tip: when hiring, hire at least SOME people with facilitation skills and talents. This should not always be an outside job! Let’s co-source, not outsource)
  • is serving the sponsor, not the group (tip: power is always in play. Discuss and use it generatively. It is OK to challenge your client, and essential as a consultant.)
  • works hard to facilitate listening but sometimes fails (tip: learn how you listen and always work hard. There are lots of ways to improve)
  • doesn’t speak the local language and mistakes happen through interpretation (tip: first choice, hire facilitator who speaks the language. Second choice, have a more spacious agenda to really deal with meaning making across multiple languages.
  • takes him/herself too seriously (tip: use fun. seriously!)
  • has no repertoire or gets stuck in one approach/or is flip flopping all over the place (find the balance) (tip: always be learning. Invite your facilitees into that learning process. Build capacity all around)”

A very good and inspiring list!

But another inspiring topic that Nancy once raised in a video shared with me was about the dark side of co-facilitation.

The dark side - more like two sides dancing in the dark in the middle of change (Credits - Ryan Dury/FlickR)
The dark side – more like two sides dancing in the dark in the middle of change (Credits – Ryan Dury/FlickR)

Every facilitator would usually agree that having a co-facilitator is great.


Because, among others: it’s richer to design an event with another pair of eyes and another brain; it’s more fun and less work for everyone; it allows one to facilitate and the other to think about the next session or to ‘read the audience’; it provides different dynamics (due to the different styles) which potentially liberates more energy for participants in the room – not more of the same; you learn a lot from working with one another, from the big questions at the design stage to the micro details at the facilitation stage; it makes the reporting and documentation a lot easier…

You get the idea? Try and get two facilitators to work together on a gig, instead of one!

So what about that dark side?

Although luckily it doesn’t often happen (perhaps because having two simultaneous facilitators doesn’t happen often), having two (or more) facilitators on the same job can also be real trouble when:

  • You don’t know each other well and can’t capitalise on each other’s strong and weak points;
  • The more experienced facilitator actually leaves very little space for the less experienced one to find their space and dominates the planning/reflection process;
  • Or either of you feels that they are not valued in the design/thinking process (i.e. the strategic aspects of facilitation, not the ‘operational facilitation on the spot’);
  • You disagree with each other’s way to design a workshop (e.g. well planned and structured vs. open-ended);
  • You both read a situation differently (e.g. close a nascent conflict because it would be really detrimental to the spirit or use it in a constructive way?) and accordingly have behaviours that might contradict each other in the spur of the moment, potentially leaving your participants -very- confused;
  • You disagree openly and create a really bad impression on the participants, not least because you’re causing the focus of attention to shift to you rather than to the conversation at hand;
  • You are both strong-headed and find it difficult to accept each other’s views, leading the workshop to no good conversation or clear output… that’s the worst that can happen.
  • Either of you draws the praise to themselves or blames the other person for the problems that arise, rather than focus on ‘so how do we crawl out of this hole?’ together…

I have never experienced some of the situations above, like leading an event to a complete failure because of conflicting duo dynamics, but definitely have gone through moments of disagreement with each other’s design or way to handle things, or feeling not heard enough (whether for good or bad reasons) but each time me and my co-facilitator found a solution. Better be prepared for those moments anyway, as they are not enjoyable, so here are some ideas to avoid the dark side of co-facilitation:

What does it take to overcome that dark side?

Shared experience: Knowing each other definitely helps – the more of a common history you have built with one another, the better it is as you know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and can co-design around this. Talk about it together and explore what you both enjoy doing (or not).

Co-creation and exploratory design: Grapple with the big picture together, toy around with objectives and translating them in work forms in an exploratory conversation, and when it comes to the details of who does what, fear not asking very practical, very silly-looking questions (“do I speak before or after you for the participant’s introduction?”, “After your summary comments do you want me to transition to the next session and announce coffee break?”).

Curiosity and openness: Embracing change and the unknown with an open mind is the key to joint facilitation, particularly if the latter involves dual improvisation (as it works on the principle of ‘yes AND’, not ‘yes BUT’…)

Generosity: Rather than play the card of keeping to one’s sessions and ideas, bring the other person along in your reflection, and show them you are interested in their ideas, in finding good ideas together. Who gets the credit doesn’t really matter, developing strong relationships by working hard on a joint initiative is a lot more important.

Joint reflection and an open heart, to discuss frankly what went well or not, much beyond blaming each other or uncritically praising each other or both (even though some sense of achievement can be really helpful in boosting the duo’s morale). In cases when you disagree on how the other ran a session, discuss it as soon as possible and reflect together. And if, at the end of the gig, there’s a consensus that the two facilitators can’t work each other, being conscious of that is also helpful for the future 😉 though in most cases facilitators should be able to negotiate an amicable solution together, as that’s also our job isn’t it?

Focus on the task at hand. At the end of the day, keeping in mind that you have to do a fine job at getting the best out of the participants and achieving objectives set (or whatever better pursuit was identified along the way).

Humour and talking in self-derision… this really talks to the examples that Nancy mentioned above. It releases tension, builds a rapport, makes the whole thing more enjoyable and last but not least, it helps focus on what really matters, i.e. not you as facilitators.

Once again, fun, focus and feedback seems like a winning formula!

What are your experiences and tips on getting out of these difficult situations?

Related blog posts:

Also check all posts in the category ‘facilitation‘.


Published by Ewen Le Borgne

Collaboration and change process optimist motivated by ‘Fun, focus and feedback’. Nearly 20 years of experience in group facilitation and collaboration, learning and Knowledge Management, communication, innovation and change in development cooperation. Be the change you want to see, help others be their own version of the same.

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  1. Hello Michelle,

    Yeah, I know the feeling, it is usually really great and even in my case it didn’t happen so very often. However, in larger events – such as the recent ICT4Ag conference in Rwanda last November – more facilitators are hired and even though they may not facilitate the same sessions together, they design and debrief the event together, that’s also a really nice approach. In the ict4ag case I had the rare pleasure of working with friends-facilitators Lucie, Nancy and Nadia, a real treat. Wish this would happen more often.
    However, as it dawns on people that having one facilitator is much better than having none, I trust more and more will realise it might be even better to have 2 instead of 1. It’s down to all of us to insist on this (even if at first it doesn’t change anything) 🙂

    Thank you for your comments and engagement, as ever!

  2. I rarely am provided budget for co-facilitation but have thoroughly enjoyed it when possible. In fact, I’d do it no other way if I could choose my co-facilitator. The Art of Hosting (a way of hosting conversations that matter, very akin to KM4Dev style/complex topics) recommend a ‘hosting team’ to get best results.

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